UPDATED: 'Iron Man 2': makes only $128.1 million - blockbuster or summer box office underachiever?

Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow at the world premiere of "Iron Man 2"

Was there just a little too much Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in the media over the past few weeks?

Credit: AP Photo/Matt Sayles

Update: May 10, 2:52 PM - The actual figures are in for this weekends box office and surprise, surprise, "Iron Man 2" generated $128.1 million over the 3-day weekend.  That still put the sequel in the fifth slot all time, but the figure was off an eyebrow raising $5.5 million. A discrepancy that big won't be lost on Paramount's competitors.

In hindsight to the original post below, that puts "Iron Man 2" approximately $30 million behind projections before its debut. 

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Being the first movie out of the gate during the highly profitable summer movie season is never easy, but when you're the sequel to a surprise hit that helped sell a comic book company for $4.3 billion there is even more pressure to deal with.  That was the case for "Iron Man 2" this weekend and its strong, but not spectacular estimated gross of $133.6 million.

After the original "Iron Man" grossed an unexpected $98 million on its way to over $318 million two years ago, the expectations were high for the second go around.  Robert Downey, Jr. became one of  Hollywood's all-time comeback kids (did you think Jude Law was the reason "Sherlock Holmes" became a monster hit?), original director (and fan favorite) Jon Favreau was back, Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke agreed to play the film's villain Whiplash and Scarlett Johansson seemed more than sexy enough to tease teenage boys as the Black Widow.  Plus, unknown to many, the Walt Disney company's acquisition of Marvel Studios injected a bit more capital into "Iron Man 2's" budget (a reported $170 million overall) after complaints Marvel's thriftiness embarrassed even the most conservative industry accountants.  Oh, and did we mention that ever since the sequel was announced it had been one of the most polled "must see" movies across the board?

So, with a record 4,380 screens at its disposal, industry polling services saying it was off the charts (one service predicted $140 million plus, the other two went for $150 million plus) there was an increasing amount of optimism that "Iron Man 2" would come close to breaking "The Dark Knight's" $158.4 million record.  And if not, i would be damn close.  Even without the higher ticket prices of 3-D!

For a moment, let's look at the "Dark Knight" figure from a business perspective.  Almost every movie fan has their favorite franchise or flick and wants it to be the best whether that means becoming the highest grossing film ever or winning 10 Academy Awards.  Those sort of achievements are validation that your taste, your preferences, what you "like" is shared and adored by others.  That's not the issue with "Iron Man 2."  This isn't about cinemascore (reportedly an "A"), but about money.

Until Marvel Studios furnishes a track record of consistency close to Pixar or, shoot, even Tyler Perry, no matter what assurances the Walt Disney company has given Kevin Feige and co. there is always the chance the new boss is going to make changes to right the ship as they see fit.  Marvel's other release to date, "The Incredible Hulk," did a solid, but hardly spectacular $134 million making many wonder why a reboot to Ang Lees 2003 flick was even necessary in the first place.  Marvel is not infallible and Disney knows it.

Moreover, one of the strangest distribution arrangements in recent memory finds Paramount Pictures, which handled almost all aspects of the first "Iron Man's launch, being micromanaged by their counterparts at Disney for the foreseeable future.  Although Marvel always financed and produced the "Iron Man" movies themselves, they signed a distribution contract with Paramount for five films before Disney came on board.  Needless to say, while publicly sticking to the arrangement (because they really don't have any way to get out of it yet) the Mouse House would like nothing better than Paramount to abandon the current arrangement which finds the studio getting a fee for marketing and distribution services Disney could easily handle on its own.  It's an uncomfortable situation all around with neither side willing to budge (yet). And that no doubt led to what were some painfully subtle, yet disturbing marketing mistakes for all three companies with "IM2."  Let's start with the most important...the message.

Non-Event message
While the trailers for "Iron Man 2" had great shots of special effects and zippy one liners, there wasn't much of a story at play.  What was the message exactly?  What was "IM2" supposed to be about?  It appeared to be more of the same. More funny Downey, Jr., more sexy sidekicks such as Johansson, more amazing special effects and, um, more AC/DC.  Without a compelling narrative, without the title character in jeopardy and without a fresh angle, where is the urgency to race to the theater?  What's at stake?  Judging by the trailers and TV spots, not much.  That's marketing 101 people.  You can't skip out on that even if you have to fake it.

Can you ever have too many TV spots? Yes, yes you can.
Promotional partners are always a good thing, but over-saturation is not (just ask Sony Pictures about 1998's "Godzilla"). Along with Paramount's own commercial barrage, TV spots running the same imagery from the picture filled commercials by Oracle, Norton, LG and (to a lesser extent) Burger King.  This only compounded a growing sense of "been there, seen that." For the casual movie fan who makes a few blockbusters the three or four films they see a year in the theater, the repetitive message may have diminished the "must see" factor for "IM2."  Yes, it's a theory, but its a good one.

Did the publicity peak hit too early?
Attempting to avoid the onslaught of the World Cup this June, which distracts the attention of almost every male moviegoer outside of the U.S., Paramount and Marvel decided to open "Iron Man 2" in over 50 markets a week before the film debuted stateside.  While the cast didn't trek across the globe for numerous premieres (as was the case with the "Transformers" crew last summer), there were numerous worldwide breaks that might have hit a tad early relative to the U.S. release.  For a sequel like "IM2" it turned what should have been a strong 10-day countdown to opening to expand to almost three weeks of non-stop celebrity sound bytes. And along with the previously mentioned media onslaught it may just have been too much "IM2" wherever you turned.

Is something wrong or something right going on in Paramount marketing?
Something fascinating has occurred at Paramount Pictures.  The studio has transformed itself, almost by accident, into a company that specializes in quality pictures that usually play out in the long run versus the traditional opening weekend.  Some of their gradual successes include "Paranormal Activity," "Up in the Air," "Shutter Island" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."  Surprisingly, its the films that seem to be on track for huge openings that don't have those massive openings anymore.  Anyone remember the disappointment over "Star Trek's" first weekend  a year ago?  Massive hype, amazing reviews and only a $75 million weekend.  Initially, there was concern the film would never make its $200, er, $175, er, $150 million budget back.  Instead, "Trek's" quality won out and the film played almost all summer to three times its debut (a rarity these days) and a $257 million gross. Earlier this year, "How To Train Your Dragon" (the best reviewed film in DreamWorks Animation history) had an incredibly scary $43 million opening.  Instead of falling apart, the film became a word of mouth wonder passing $200 million this weekend with a sequel already on the way.  And even last summer's massively hyped "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" grossed just $108 million over its opening weekend.  A "stunner" considering the hype, but the picture still ended up with $400 million plus when all was said and done (somewhat shocking considering how god-awful it was). Is this luck or a new way of doing things in Hollywood?  The answer might depend on who you are talking too and where, but it's certainly a lot more stressful (no pressure on "The Last Airbender" by the way.)

But again, when it all comes down to it, the issue here is money.  Somewhere, a Disney accountant has $400 million plus penciled in for "Iron Man's" domestic gross which means something to the corporation's bottom line.  Does a $20 million difference over a film's first three days really put that figure in jeopardy?  It absolutely could, because if "IM2" only makes a bit more than the original's $318 million that won't be seen as the financial success it should have been and that's a big deal for a publicly traded company no matter what the spin.  And at that point, there won't be massive celebrating the next time Paramount and Disney execs are "forced" to work together again on next summer's "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger."  And for genre fans who have dreamed of an age where their favorite heroes dominate the big screen, that's not a good thing either.

Moreover, for anyone who wants to know why and how Hollywood ticks it's just another fascinating chess game on a never ending game board.  Disney, Marvel and Paramount's next move?  Praying you decided to see "Iron Man 2" again.

 

For the latest entertainment commentary and breaking news year round, follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter @HitFixGregory .

 

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